Various - Punk Goes Acoustic (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


Punk Goes Acoustic (2003)


I remember reading an interview with Rivers Cuomo where he explained that his rule for song writing was to compose as much as possible on an acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar, he said, would force you to concentrate on the melody and the song structure and not cheat by hiding behind a wall of distortion.

It seemed like good advice, and in one way, Fearless's Punk Goes Acoustic is a pretty sound litmus test of which bands can hold their own when stripped down to the bare essentials. Of course, punk bands from the Clash to Green Day to the Alkaline Trio have demonstrated a mastery of minimal acoustic song writing, but the question is whether this crop of bands can pull it off.

There were a couple of easy bets; Thursday's acoustic reimagining of their beautiful "A Hole in The World" channels Thom Yorke but loses none of the wonderful atmosphere of the original. Likewise, there was no doubt in my mind that Open Hand would handle an acoustic song gracefully, their spacious, ringing sound well-suited to this kind of presentation.

Up in the air, in my mind, were Rise Against and Coalesce. Don't get me wrong, I love Rise Against's fiery melodic hardcore, and Coalesce's too-smart-for-you metal, but I had my doubts that they would be able to work without their layered sounds. Coalesce turns in "Blue Collar Lullaby", a dark and gritty, but sweet track, with layered vocals, and definitely dominates the CD as the most ambitious undertaking. "Blue Collar Lullaby" is solid evidence that you don't need loud guitars to be intense.

Likewise, Rise Against contributes a track written by one Neil Hennesey (who may or may not be the drummer from the Lawrence Arms) "Swing Life Away" has Tim singing gently, over a simple but amazingly catchy guitar line. Backups from Bill Stevenson flush out what is probably my favourite track on the disc.

The Ataris' track "Eight of Nine" isn't too bad, and considering how much experience Kris Roe has with the acoustic tracks, it's not surprising that he turns in a decent track. His voice is significantly less whiny than the more generic boy-singer sounds that litter some of the other tracks, so it's a welcome effort. Meanwhile Strike Anywhere's version of Chalkline is a little strained, but has the kind of honesty that is just plain necessary on an acoustic record. It adds much depth into a track which was already awash in it. The slight vocals should be annoying, but are instead pretty endearing.

"Gathering Darkness" performed by Grade - though in reality it was pretty much just vocalist Kyle Bishop - is frustrating because I've heard Bishop on acoustic tracks before, but this track lacks focus and seems to ramble on a little too much. At nearly five minutes, but lacking the complexity of the Coalesce outing, it grows a little tiresome by the end.

Meeting me halfway in the "Tolerable Department" (tolerable in that it didn't immediately annoy me into skipping it) are the tracks from Sugarcult, which turns in a fairly radio friendly number which will probably be on their MTV Unplugged in about six months. Likewise the Starting Line, a band I have little interest in normally, opens with a guitar part straight off the first Jets to Brazil record, so I did listen to most of the track, much to my chagrin as the main chorus had a oddly stuttered guitar part which may have worked on an electric but thumped annoyingly on the acoustic. Equally tolerable were the outings from Midtown, Strung Out and Glasseater; neither annoying nor particularly memorable.

While I have mercifully avoided it till this point in the review, there were some really painful tracks. I should start by mentioning that while I wouldn't consider myself a Finch fan by any means, I found some of their last record interesting at least. But the fact of the matter is that the vocalist desperately needs the guitars, thumping basslines and double-kick drums to back him up, because he seems to be struggling to keep his voice in tune in "Letters to You" a song you'd think he'd know pretty damn well by this point. I mean, I think I could sing it in pitch by now.

Taking Back Sunday - a band whose intense dislike I do not share with some of you - suffers from the same problem. This guy desperately needs a backing band because his warbling vocals seem to dance all around the melodic line without ever landing on it. I sincerely don't want to seem harsh, but seriously, stick with the band. From Autumn to Ashes joins Taking Back Sunday and Finch in my "must-skip" list, because of weak vocals that seem off-key.

Like any compilation, this one is a mixed bag. The biggest surprises were the poetic and emotional undertakings from bands not typically associated with the quiet. On the other hand, some of the biggest disappointments came from bands renowned for their pop and melodic song writing which seemed to depend too heavily on a full band to get their point across.

It's equally hard to make a solid recommendation because of the large range of quality throughout this compilation, but I feel that the outings from Thursday, Rise Against and Coalesce more than make this a worthy listen.